By Scott Flavin | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine

The great violinist Nathan Milstein continually emphasized two main practice goals: make it better and make it easier. A great place to start this kind of work is to look at the intersection of the bow and the string: Beginners are instructed to put the bow on the string and pull. As students gain greater fluency, the breath becomes tied to bow use, and the larger gestures of the right arm are used to initiate bow strokes. 

Quite often, sensitivity to the actual moment when the bow initially contacts the string becomes lost, and if the bow approaches the string with an incorrect amount of weight or speed, or at the wrong point of contact, the result may be a less-than-ideal sound or position. Thus, starting from the string (SOS, or grounding one’s overall technique by focusing on the moment the bow first touches the string) is a critical tool in making playing both better and easier.


Advertisement


The three main elements of bow tone production (or the Big Three) are bow speed (or how much bow is being used), bow weight (or bow pressure or arm weight), and contact point (or sounding point or point of contact). There are infinite sound colors to be found in the manipulation of these three variables. SOS produces many positive effects in these areas, including:

  • Physical efficiency: By using the weight and balance of the arm rather than excessive preparatory gestures, there is greater economy of motion.
  • Ensemble uniformity: Whether in orchestra or chamber music, starting from the string will help ensembles play together.
  • Greater power and color: By focusing on the intersection of bow and string, greater attention can be paid to tone through the manipulation of the Big Three bow tone variables: speed, weight, and contact point. An example is the opening of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104. Yes, there can be a gesture connected with the breath and moving the whole arm, but if the bow contacts the string without a clear beginning, that first note will lack definition and perhaps strength of tone.
  • Clarity: A greater sensitivity to articulation can be found by starting from the string.

How to SOS

In order to gain control starting from the string, several strategies may be helpful.


Advertisement


Pizzicato: Without holding your bow, “feel” the string with your plucking finger and look for a release of the right arm as well as a feeling of balance before you pizz. Gradually you will find increased ease and consistency in pizzicato. Once that has been achieved, do the same with the bow, placing it at the frog and using a balanced and released right arm to make a clear down bow. It may take some repetition to find the proper balance and avoid crunching the sound. 


Advertisement


Articulated Strokes: Practicing bow strokes with articulated beginnings that start on the string (like collé and martelé) are excellent for building the musculature and sensitivity to the string that is needed. Collé is a bow stroke that starts from the string and is initiated by the smaller joints of the arm, most notably the fingers. Martelé can take many forms but is articulated at the beginning and the end of each note, meaning that the bow begins from the string with a good deal of bow weight, the pressure is released in the middle of the note (creating a rounder tone), and weight is added at the end of the note, stopping the bow on the string. Kreutzer étude No. 7 is traditionally used for working on these bow strokes, but scales or repertoire may be helpful as well. Be able to start with either down bows or up bows at both the frog and the tip, as well as the middle, balance point, and other parts of the bow, in varied dynamics and tempi.

Have fun finding ever-richer tonal possibilities with greater ease, always remembering that successful bow placement creates a greater connection with the string and uses the balance of the arm, rather than force, to better control bow tone. By gaining greater control of how you’re placing the bow on the string, you can use your energy where it counts—in the sound.

SOS Strategies

  • Practice starting from the string, initially as pizzicato, then with martelé and collé, helping gain muscle control and consistency.
  • Keep breathing! There must always be a preparatory breath for a new bow stroke, whether starting above the string or from the string.
  • Be continually aware of the Big Three elements of bow tone: bow speed, bow weight, bow contact point.
  • Have fun finding greater richness and tonal control with less effort!